Rita West is one of the most defining characters in arguably the most successful and critically acclaimed New Zealand-made TV series. Even dead, in Outrageous Fortune, she had a formidable presence. Antonia Prebble writes about playing Loretta and then her grandmother, Rita, in Westside. The final series started screening this week and comes to an end after 12 seasons. Prebble also reflects on her character's influence on feminism and fashion.
Is it possible to be a feminist even when you say you're not one? Rita West showed me that yeah, maybe it is.
I had the pleasure of playing Rita for 20 years of her life. From when she was a young woman in her prime, bossing everyone around and shagging Ted at every opportunity, to the very end of her life when she was, well, still bossing and shagging quite a lot, actually.
And now that we have wrapped the final season of Westside, it feels apt to take stock and reflect on this remarkable woman who, throughout our time together, never ceased to surprise, delight and completely confound me.
One thing that always intrigued me about Rita was that she doesn't consider herself a feminist. In fact, she thinks they're ridiculous; getting their knickers in a knot - and ruining perfectly good bras - for no good reason. She articulated her position back in 1982, when Cheryl and Riana, Bert's girlfriend at the time, were criticising the unequal division of labour in the West household. Several gins to the wind, Rita sat the girls down and said, "Okay bitches," (a moniker possibly not endorsed by Gloria Steinem) "you need to learn some lessons about what it's like to live here in the real world." She went on to explain that it's "a man's world" and, while that might not be fair, it is the reality, so there is no point trying to change that fact.
Having spent six years inside Rita's mind, I understand her position on feminism and the logic she used to get there. However, I can also see that, despite her convictions to the contrary, there are certain elements of her character that do align with the pillars of the feminist movement. For example, when there's a job on, Rita's role is to cook Ted and the gang a hearty meal before they leave and then sit up - all night, if necessary - and wait for them to return. But she is no 1950s housewife whose jurisdiction stops at the front door. Rita, along with Ted, is the accepted leader of the West family and their associates. She is the matriarch who people must report to, who people are scared of and whose hardened reputation is known throughout their West Auckland universe. She has high status within her world and her practice of cooking and cleaning does not diminish this in any way. Rita reclaims her right to stay at home in the same way that the third wave feminists reclaimed their right to wear lipstick, high heels and push-up bras.
The way Rita dresses also supports feminist values. She chooses clothes purely on the basis of how they make her feel and could not care less about what other people might think. Her sartorial style (low-cut tops, short skirts, tight jeans) stayed the same throughout her life and broadcast her right to identify as a sexy, strong woman for as long as she goddamn pleases.
In the domestic sphere, the West house and kitchen represent far more than just the place for Rita to do her women's work. Yes, she cooks but as well as dinners for the men, she bakes poisoned lamingtons that she feeds to anyone who breaks the West family code. (An upshot of this, by the way, is that I can no longer take lamingtons to a party as it makes people too anxious - but them's the breaks.)
Similarly, the house is not just a collection of carpets she needs to vacuum. Instead, it is the beating heart of the Wests' world. It is a headquarters where crimes are devised and victories are celebrated. It is a battleground, a safehouse and a symbol of everything that is important to the Wests. Rita has dominion over the house and she also has dominion over the Wests.
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Another way that Rita, unwittingly, endorses feminist ideas is through the discourse around angry women. In the book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes addresses the age-old notion that women should keep their composure at all times and avoid any displays of extreme emotion – particularly anger. Clarissa argues that, instead, a woman's anger should be celebrated because it can be a constructive force that changes society for the better. Within the world of the Wests, Rita's anger, which is expressed fiercely, frequently and loudly, is often the agent of positive change. When her hackles go up, people listen and s*** gets done. Rita is totally unafraid to speak (or shout) her mind and she is rewarded, not sidelined, for her efforts.
Perhaps, though, it is with the fourth wave feminists that Rita best aligns. She cannot stand violence against women and would definitely find some friends in the #MeToo and Times Up movements. In 1976, when Carol turned up sporting a black eye after a fight with Phineas, Rita picked up a hot oven tray and proceeded to beat him over the head with it. If she had met Harvey Weinstein, that oven tray would have been applied to a more sensitive area.
This fierce, uncompromising side of Rita is what seems to resonate the most with New Zealanders. Whenever someone comes up to talk to me about Westside, they will almost always say the same thing, that they "love how staunch Rita is". I feel the same way. My six-year residency underneath Rita's mullet taught me so much about female strength. She reminded me, daily, to have confidence in my opinions, to stick up for myself and, above all, to always stay true to who I am.
I love that this is Rita's enduring legacy. I love that by following her own rules, she has joined the canon of strong female characters. And so, while she would be rolling in her grave to hear me say this, it seems that Rita is a feminist after all, perhaps just a couple of waves ahead of her time.
Outrageous Fortune went to air first in 2005. Say farewell to the notorious Wests in the sixth and final series of Westside, screening on Three, Mondays.
Antonia Prebble has a new podcast called "The most of it" - a series of conversations on how to make the most of our lives. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and castbox